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A bitter brew in the high ranges

Tea plantation workers in Kerala are facing starvation, following the closing down of several small and medium companies. The reason? Unrestricted imports and a sharp fall in international prices of tea. The ugly reality of the resulting poverty writ large on the faces of malnourished women and children and disillusioned men — once safely engaged in plantation work — is the tragic story of a `market-driven humanitarian crisis', says SREEDEVI JACOB.

THE picturesque and lush green hills, with their numerous rivulets and deep valleys in Idukki district's Peermade, in Kerala, are a façade. They hide poverty, a reality the State refuses to acknowledge or accept. Here, the 40,000 workers of tea plantations cannot remember when they last had their three square meals a day.



Plantation workers, especially women, suffer the most as this is often, the only job they know.

Most of the plantations in the area have stopped production; the workers have not been given their provident fund or gratuity amount; electricity to the line houses, where the workers stay, has been disconnected for non-payment of charges by the company, the estate hospitals do not function; supply of drinking water has been stopped and people walk five kilometres to fetch water; many children have stopped going to school. "Each of us should get a minimum of Rs. 75,000 as dues towards provident fund, gratuity, etc," says Daisy who has been working in RBT plantations, the largest estate, for the last 15 years. "Even the free ration which the government granted stopped after a while." There have been eight cases of suicide and 12 deaths due to starvation and denial of medical care, since the crisis in the tea industry began. Of these, one was of a school girl, Velankanni, who hung herself as she could no longer put up with the taunts of her classmates for having worn a torn uniform — a second-hand one that her parents borrowed from someone.

Out of the 36 estates owned by 16 groups in Peermade taluk, 22 belonging to the Peermade Tea Company, the MMJ Plantations, Pullikanam Estate, Haileyburia estate and the Rai Bahadur Thakur (RBT) Group II have closed down. In some of the remaining estates, while plucking is carried out, no salary is paid. Rs. 200 is given as weekly store cash in these plantations. In some other plantations which are not active, workers, in connivance with the trade unions, pluck the leaves and sell them outside.

The plantation sector is important to the economy of Kerala, contributing about Rs. 2,911 crores to its GDP. Kerala produces 34 per cent of the tea produced in South India and has a national output of 10 per cent. There are nearly 40,000 workers, mainly women, dependent on the plantations in Peermade. They were permanent workers, plucking the leaves and earning between Rs. 81 to Rs. 120 per day in addition to Rs. 150 paid per week as store cash. The men who did attendant jobs like pruning the tea bushes and spraying pesticides earned Rs 77.26 per day. The management provided the workers water, electricity, healthcare and education, besides accommodation.

But all that is passé.

Since the crisis began about three years ago, estate after estate has closed down, forcing the employees to look elsewhere for a living. Estates that were export-oriented were the worst-hit. Poor productivity of Kerala's tea industry could not face the onslaught of globalisation and the impact of tea imported from Sri Lanka. In addition, old bushes, a lack of infilling, inadequate storage of water resources, old machinery and outdated technology only affected the quality of tea produced. A report prepared by the Dr. M.S. Swaminathan Commission on World Trade Organisation (WTO) concerns in agriculture also raises doubts about the quality of Kerala tea and states that its future lies in the improvement of productivity and quality, as well as the manufacture and marketing of value-added products, like instant tea and tea bags.

Faulty auction practices, mainly proxy bidding and the divisibility rule, which permits a buyer to buy tea without placing the bid, further crippled the industry and, thereby, the workers. While men went to nearby agricultural areas to do menial jobs, the women have been forced to migrate to the cities as domestic help. Many women below 25 years have gone to Gujarat as workers in seafood (prawn) processing/cleaning units.

In Peermade, poverty is writ large on faces here. Malnourished women, near-naked children, disillusioned men, all stand for that one ugly reality.

A. Siby, who has completed his degree in psychology, is sure he does not want to study immediately.

"I was good at studies and would have loved to continue it.



The tea growing areas of Kerala: 1. Wayanad; 2. Nelliampathy; 3. The High Ranges (Idukki); 4. Peermade; 5. Vandiperiyar; 6. Thiruvananthapuram.

"But I can't be at peace with myself when my parents are starving. Though they go out to work it's not enough," he says. So Siby now assists a teashop owner in Peermade. "I know that making parathas is not what I studied for, but my immediate aim is to keep my people alive," he says to justify his decision. His brother, a diploma holder in hotel management, works in nearby Kochi.

Most of the workers here are second generation Tamilians who migrated from across the border decades ago, when the estates were owned by the British. Born and brought up in this environment, they are not trained to do anything other than attending to the plantations.

L. Chelladurai, a worker in the RBT estates for the last decade, says the workers tried to fight the crisis themselves. "A group of us tried to pluck the leaves and earn a living. Since the plantation owners had anyway abandoned the estate and had not pruned the plants for years, it would not have affected their prospects. But we were arrested and have to appear before court periodically. When you can't earn enough for three square meals, how can you meet the expenses for fighting a case? So we left that." The RBT group has two divisions in Peermade, both virtually dysfunctional. The managers have left the estates unattended; a part of the property was confiscated recently for non-payment of provident fund dues to the employees.

Life for the workers is difficult.

There have been many dropouts (unofficially 500) from the nearby panchayat school, where most of the workers' children studied. When the estates were functioning, transportation costs were partly borne by the management. Now the parents can neither afford to buy uniforms for the children nor buy books. Worse, the children do not have enough food. When Velankanni committed suicide, the post-mortem revealed that there was no trace of food in her intestine.

Since doctors have not been paid, hospitals have stopped functioning and medicines to be supplied by the management do not come. Food was to be bought from ration shops at subsidised rates, but the closure of plantations has come to mean a denial of purchase itself. While the workers blame the mismanagement of the plantation owners and the low import duty on Sri Lankan tea for the present crisis, the management squarely blames the workers. They feel the workers should rise to the occasion and work for reduced rates to tide over the crisis.

"Wages should be linked to productivity. In Tamil Nadu, workers agreed for a wage cut to get over the crisis. But in Kerala this has not happened," says Ullas Menon, secretary-general of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI).



Export oriented tea estates have been the worst hit.

Though a Parliamentary committee and an Assembly committee held an enquiry into the crisis, nothing much has been done. "A committee set up by the Centre to resolve the issue has submitted recommendations to open the closed estates," says S.S. Nambudiri, Joint Controller of Licensing, Tea Board. But, State Labour Minister Babu Divakaran has still not received a copy of the report from the Centre. "Though we have made a request for a change in Exim policy, nothing has been done so far," he adds. In an effort to mitigate the crisis, the State has exempted estates from plantation tax this year, but when there is no production, such gestures hardly count.

The Government, on its part, has held many fruitless meetings with tea cultivators and trade union leaders.

"Real estate interests are turning many plantations into small plots fit for constructing houses," says P.A. Raju, a leader of the Central Industrial Trade Union (CITU) in Peermade.

Abandoned plantations are often sold by the managers to local people. Fearing opposition from workers, the management often divides an estate into segments and sells these as smallholdings to small time players. They run the plantation for a few months before converting them into real estate opportunities.

Contrary to the general mood of calamity, two plantations run by Harrison Malayalam Limited (H.L.L.) and A.V. Thomas and Company (A.V.T.) have been paying their employees on time. According to Vijayamohanan Nair, Senior Manager (Accounts) of A.V.T., this has been possible because the company also has a packet tea division. "We do not depend on the auction. Our tea goes into the internal markets in South India, whereas those who look at auction aimed at export will suffer from the huge variance of prices," he says.

A report prepared by the Centre for Education and Communication in May 2003, on the crisis in the Indian tea industry, recommends that the workers in the tea gardens of Peermade be given a free ration of food grains, access to medical facilities including mobile hospitals, drinking water and assistance to school going children. It further states that the State Government along with planters' associations and the Tea Board should assume moral responsibility and initiate relief measures.

But precious little has been done.

* * *

Kerala has approximately 37,000 hectares of tea plantations, constituting eight per cent of the area under tea cultivation in the country, and employs approximately 84,000 workers. The low productivity is the result of Kerala's dependence on old and low yielding plants. Eighty per cent of tea plantations are over 80 years old.

* * *

The tea growing tracks of South India, extending along the Western Ghats, vary in their elevation from 300 to 2,300 m above MSL and experience an annual rainfall ranging from 90-750 cm.

* * *

The earliest record of commercial planting in Peermade in Kerala was in 1875. The development of the Kanan Devan Hills by James Finlay and Co. in 1878 with tea as an exclusive crop, is a landmark in the history of tea planting in this part of the country. Soon, tea cultivation caught on in Wayanad (Wynaad) and by 1889, planting was taken up on a large scale in the district.

* * *

According to the latest figures provided by the department of economics and statistics, Kerala's tea production has dropped from 69,132 tonnes in 2000-01 to 66,090 tonnes in 2001-02.

©The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi.

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